Independent London Mayor candidate Rory Stewart has come under direct attack from rivals in the race for City Hall for voting against delaying a decision on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal at yesterday’s special House of Commons sitting.
Green Party candidate Siân Berry and the Liberal Democrats’ Siobhan Benita took to Twitter to denounce the MP, who left the Conservative Party earlier this month to launch his mayoral bid.
Berry wrote that “no one aiming to be Mayor of London should use a seat in Parliament to do this to our city”, adding “put away your selfie stick Rory and go home”, while Benita said, “For someone who likes walking so much, Rory Stewart is sure out of step with Londoners” – a reference to Stewart’s signature “Rory Walks” campaigning style and to the capital’s electorate voting by 60 per cent to 40 to Remain in the European Union at the 2016 referendum.
Both the Lib Dems and the Greens favour a further referendum to resolve the Brexit issue. Stewart voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, but was a consistent supporter of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May and yesterday voted against a successful amendment by Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, which withholds Commons approval for May’s successor Johnson’s deal until all UK legislation needed in order to leave the EU has been passed.
Stewart has explained his stance on the Letwin amendment in a video, underling that he voted Remain in 2016 and lost the Conservative whip in the Commons for supporting the so-called Benn Act, a legislative measure to prevent “no deal”. In the clip, he says he believes the EU has been “a very positive force for Britain” but that divisions over Brexit “are getting worse all the time” and that if Johnson’s deal doesn’t go through “a purgatory of two opposing positions” will continue in the place of traditional British compromise.
While accepting the outcome of the 2016 referendum, Stewart argued against leaving the EU without a deal during his bid during the summer to become Conservative Party leader following May’s resignation. During that campaign Stewart attained a media profile as a liberal Tory opposed to Brexit extremists.
But both Berry and Benita have challenged this from the start, with Benita drawing attention to Stewart’s Commons voting record and dubbing him a “Brexiter” and Berry claiming he is “not a serious contender for Mayor” and asserting that the job is not one for politicians at a “loose end”.
Benita, who joined yesterday’s Peoples’ March for a further referendum to resolve the Brexit deadlock, later tweeted that “Unlike Rory Stewart, I will NEVER compromise on its future” and, in a veiled reference to Stewart’s background, that “London is home”.
Benita’s birthplace is Wimbledon in the capital’s south western suburbs, whereas Stewart, who represents the Cumbrian seat of Penrith & The Border in Parliament, was born in Hong Kong and brought up in Malaysia and Scotland. Earlier this month, Benita contrasted her London roots with Stewart’s background while on a weekend visit to Cumbria, saying she would “be happy to take you on a pub crawl in London”, having “lived and worked there for 48 years”.
Cheltenham-born Berry’s suggestion to Stewart that he should “go home” drew a rebuke from the Greens’ parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, Shahrar Ali, who described it as “inappropriate language”, though Berry explained that she had meant “home to his house“.
Candidates’ attitudes to Brexit have been a feature of early exchanges in the 2020 London Mayor campaign, with current Mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, a strong Remainer, directing much of his attention to its possible effects on London and calling recently for a further referendum in advance of the next general election. Khan was prominent on the People’s Vote march yesterday and spoke from a platform in favour of giving voters a “final say”. Benita has intensified her attack on Stewart this morning, asking in a statement: “How can he claim to speak for London and talk about compromise when he backs an extreme version of Brexit that will so damage our capital city?”
Stewart’s entry into the race has heightened interest in who Khan’s closest challenger will be, with Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey struggling to make an impact, according to opinion polls. The most recent, published in May before Stewart entered the race, found that Khan would receive the first preference votes of 43 per cent of Londoners, compared with Bailey’s 23 per cent and the 16 per cent of Berry, with Benita fourth on 10 percent. Lib Dem hopes have since risen due to their gains in the ensuing European Parliament elections encouraging subsequent borough by-election results.
Bailey and fellow London Assembly Tories have persistently criticised Khan for the attention he’s giving Brexit, accusing him of using it as a distraction from his record in office. Speaking to members of the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry in September, Bailey expressed a preference for leaving the EU with a deal, but stressed his wish to concentrate on issues London Mayors have direct control or influence over.
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